VANCOUVER, B.C. -- You could call it Fantastic Friday for fans of U.S. Soccer: two games, one men's and one women's, separated by thousands of miles, that for different reasons carry a great deal of significance.
So take off work early and get yourself to a TV for Everton-Fulham, a rare showdown between the U.S.' top two field players, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey (Fox Soccer, 3 p.m. ET). And then tune in to the U.S. women's high-stakes battle against Costa Rica, the winner of which will qualify for the 2012 Olympics (Universal Sports, UniversalSports.com, 8 p.m. ET).
Let's take a closer look at the two games:
In some ways, it's unfortunate that so many U.S. fans have an either/or mentality when it comes to the two best American field players of their generation. There are Dempsey People and there are Donovan People, and while there's no need for it to be a zero-sum game, the argument is understandable. "Who's better?" is the universal starting point for any barroom debate, and Donovan and Dempsey's success -- to say nothing of their differing club paths -- makes for a classic back-and-forth.
Who's done better with the national team? Donovan. Who's had a better European club career? Dempsey. Who's got more endorsements? Donovan. Who's been better overall the past 18 months? Dempsey. Who's done more to grow MLS? Donovan. Who's got the better chance to be the U.S.'s first European superstar? Dempsey.
And so it goes. You can even take the discussion to how they play. If Donovan is white swan, a calibrated blend of speed and technique, then Dempsey is black swan, a junkyard dog, a searingly instinctual player who will beat you by any means necessary.
Donovan has played well since joining Everton on a short-term loan, often leading the attack and making Toffees fans wish he would stay permanently. Dempsey, meanwhile, is in the best form of his life. Think about this: the only Premier League players with more goals in all competitions this season than Dempsey (15) are Arsenal's Robin van Persie, Manchester United's Wayne Rooney and Manchester City's Sergio Agüero -- a trio worth a quarter of a billion dollars on the transfer market.
The soccer gods gave us this matchup when Fulham drew Everton in their fourth-round FA Cup tie. It's not like Donovan and Dempsey have faced each other often at club level: five times over the years, in fact, and not since May 6, 2006. They first met on April 17, 2004, when Donovan's San Jose Earthquakes beat Dempsey's New England Revolution. (The game was Dempsey's first MLS start, and he played as a defensive midfielder, of all things.)
In those five games, Donovan won twice, Dempsey won twice and they tied once. Donovan won the Big Game between the two, the 2005 MLS Cup final, but Dempsey prevailed the last two times they met in 2006.
Who'll win on Friday? It's must-see TV for U.S. fans.
On paper, the challenge for the U.S. women on Friday should be minimal: the Yanks have been a buzz saw in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament here, outscoring their group-stage foes 31-0 in three games to set up Friday's all-or-nothing Olympic decider against Costa Rica.
The Costa Ricans shouldn't provide much resistance: they got spanked 5-1 by Canada the other day, and the U.S. is 7-0 all-time against the Ticas with a 34-0 goal differential. Then again, there are never any guarantees, as the U.S. learned in the World Cup final against Japan (which had never beaten the Americans before) and in a stunning 2-1 loss to Mexico in qualifying for World Cup 2011. The U.S. secured the last World Cup berth only by beating Italy in a playoff, but there will be no such opportunity if the U.S. loses here on Friday.
Heading into the game, the biggest questions involve the health of U.S. stars Abby Wambach and Hope Solo. Wambach has been banged up for a while now with foot and ankle knocks, while Solo has been dealing with a strained thigh muscle. Her participation against Costa Rica will be a gametime decision.
The U.S. certainly seems to be playing well, but it's also difficult for the players to know for sure when their victory margins have been so big.
"If you were to look at the box score you'd be like, 'Wow, the U.S. is playing on top of their game,'" says Wambach. "But I think we definitely have better soccer to play in us. It's hard to gauge yourself against some of these teams in CONCACAF because they don't have the kind of experience we do or the resources that our full women's team has. And you can tell. It's getting better, but you can tell there's a drop-off from the Guatemalas and Dominican Republics and maybe Canada and the U.S. That being said, we want to test ourselves against the top teams in CONCACAF, and Costa Rica is one of them. Hopefully we can move on to the final and see who wins that game and test ourselves as well."
While you can argue that it's important for the lesser teams of CONCACAF to play top competition to improve, the U.S. needs good competition as well. That may or may not come against Costa Rica, but a potential matchup against the host Canadians in the final would certainly do that. But first things first. A golden ticket to London is on the line Friday, and the U.S. players know they can't be getting ahead of themselves.